Top Fashion designer and the Chief Executive Officer of ‘O’Saunders’, Olabisi Saunders, reveals what it feels like growing up in three different countries in Africa, what Fashion designers do just to get contact, and the effect of recession on the fashion industry in Nigeria. In this exclusive interview with Fakoyejo Olalekan, the award winning fashion designer disclosed why she chose Nigeria as her home, and why she abandoned a lucrative job and go against her mother’s wish in Sierra Leone to set up a Fashion outfit in Nigeria.
Can you please tell us about your childhood?
I have five siblings from my dad’s side and two siblings from my mum’s side. I have a younger sister who is an auditor from my mum’s side and then I have my elder brother and three other two girls and one boy from my dad’s side.
Within your siblings, what position are you?
From my mum, I’m the first and from my dad, I’m the second child, my brother is over 40 years.
Can you please tell us about your parents?
I’m coming from a mix family. My mum originated from Nigeria, while my dad is from Sierra Leone. So, I grew up in Sierra Leone and then I moved to Ghana before coming to Nigeria.
CEO of O’Saunders, Olabisi Saunders…. Credit: Tayo/Straightfromnaija.com
How did you cope with the change of environment?
For me, honestly, it is easy, I don’t know why. Change of location is very easy for me; people say they find it difficult when they move to another environment before getting use to everything. It is very easy for me, because one thing about me is, I am me, so, I just take ‘me’ to wherever I go to.
Comparing the culture of Sierra Leone to Nigeria, what do you think about them?
Interestingly, Sierra Leone and Nigeria have a lot in common, they are like siblings. They have a lot in common, especially my dad’s tribe. Sometimes, I’m like, are you sure you are not also from Nigeria, because the food we eat (all the Yoruba food) you get the same thing in Sierra Leone, the lifestyle, the party, the fun and wedding is the same thing.
Talking about the Sierra Leone education system, I’m sure it is different from Nigeria’s own?
I wouldn’t say, maybe it is, maybe it’s not. First of all, I did my primary and secondary school in Sierra Leone, then I moved to Ghana and did my university there; at Radford University and studied fashion designing. My husband is an understanding person – O’Saunders….Photo Credit: Tayo/Straightfromnaija.com
Why fashion designing?
Before, I had studied Computer Engineering (IT), but then I was just like ‘I don’t think it’s the right job for me’ and most of the time when I go for jobs or I’m in office, I found myself sketching and thinking about something not related to where I am at that moment. And then, growing up also, I think the influence came from my mother, who was also a fashion designer, even though she never wanted me to study fashion designing, because then, the industry is like ‘it’s when you drop out you go for fashion designing’, but I defended what I wanted to do.
How did you defend that?
The thing is, when I left Sierra Leone, she wanted me to study Law or Human Resources. And then, she had the support of somebody I use to date, because that person was working for a big organisation. He was the head and he wanted to slot me in into the exact system, where you get so many opportunities to travel and earn big cash. But for me, it wasn’t about earning big cash, it was about doing something I love doing and making a difference in the society with something I enjoy doing. It wasn’t about big cash, big cash will come but if you study what you don’t love, at the end of the day, you will go to the office everyday and you will be waiting for the next minute for your boss to say ‘work is over for the day, go home’, and that is not the kind of person I am, and I’m not the kind of person who you will put in one place and say, ‘oya, do this particular job every day, the same thing’. I am not a routine kind of person; I’m a person who likes to explore different things.
So, what about your dad?
My dad! Hmmm. I didn’t grow up with my dad really. He is in the state (USA), he left us when we were like a baby. He is doing fine with my siblings, so, I don’t know half of my siblings, we talk on phone, I do talk to them, because I’m the elder one and I need to keep contact, but I don’t have one on one relationship with my siblings.
How often do you see him?
I speak to my Dad quite often…. But I’ve only seen my dad three different times since he left. Change of environment doesn’t affect me… I take me to everywhere I go – O’Saunders….. Photo Credit: Tayo/Straightfromnaija.com
How did he feel with you going into fashion?
My dad normally says ‘all my kids are very headstrong’, even my mum’s side always say that to me also. I’m very headstrong, I know what I want in life and when I say I want this, there’s nobody who can say no do this. When I want something, I go for it, whether you believe in it or not, later on, I will bring you on the train.
So did he give his opinion about… (Cut in)
…Maybe he did, I don’t know, but I wasn’t listening. Not that I blocked everybody out, but I just know what I wanted, and that was the most important thing.
I’m sure your childhood dream was different?
(My childhood dream) was to become a fashion designer. There were three things I actually dreamed about; I wanted to be a pilot, a lawyer or a fashion designer. The thing about me is that I love traveling a lot, and I love seeing new places and getting inspiration from new places, messages and learning different culture. I might later study law, I am thinking about it, but I need to get my business settled.
Aside your mom, why the interest in Fashion?
I love it, it’s my life, it makes me happy, I feel good when I create cloths. I feel good when I do different things with my hands, I feel good when I make people happy with what I create or make for them.
Why did you decide to come to Nigeria?
Well, I wanted to know my mom’s side, that’s the first reason, two, it’s a bigger market than what we have in Ghana or Sierra Leone. And there is another personal one which you won’t hear from me. But the most important thing is, I wanted to know my root.
What have been the challenges so far?
Yes, it’s everywhere; you will have to be in a particular click sometimes, for you get customers. If you are not the going out type, I know it’s part of the job, it’s our social responsibility to be going out, but for me, I feel comfortable in my own space and if you are not the type that every day you are out, like meeting people and trying to behave as if you all are friends, and to be really honest, you all are not. Because, most of the times, when they say they are friends, they sit down and gossip each other at the back, all in the name of ‘I need a client’. Another thing is the retailers, I had a couple of them who got back to me, that they want some of my cloths in the stores, but sometimes the percentage they are asking for is crazy, too high. When I give them my cloths to hang in their shore and you tell me, you want 40% of the money. If you tell me you want to collect 40%, you don’t know how much I buy my fabrics, you don’t know how much time I spent on production. You don’t know all these nitty-gritty (put in the work), that’s a big challenge right now. Also, you have to bend your back for you to get that money, especially in Africa, you have to start doing ready to wear, when maybe, you are not the ready to wear kind of fashion designer; I find myself more of a sorrel designer, I like making things, making detailing, different and unique things. I am not a quitter. If you are, then the Fashion Industry is not for you – O’Saunders….. Photo Credit: Tayo/Straightfromnaija.com
Any regrets so far?
No, I don’t; even with all the negative attitudes of some people and some bloggers, even with all the tiredness, stressfulness, excessive spending on many collections and sometimes not getting it back, I’m still enjoying every bit of it.
You talk about negative comments, you mean bloggers also criticise you?
(Laughs) I’ve had a fair share of it though. If you are in the industry, it will come. And to be honest, should I say I don’t care. If the comments are what please them, then fine.
Do you have any store you own?
I work from home. This month, I have couple of stores who have already spoken to, because, I really want to start stocking, but the thing is that, I need to get tailors, and I am very particular about my tailor, about what you sew for me. I can sew for myself, but I cannot do everything. Normally, my collections I do it myself, but I can’t start doing everything and make cloths to stock, that means I will die in the next few weeks out of stress.
Are you looking forward to own your store?
Yes, but I think online is better, from what I’ve learnt from other designers, if I have the building myself, no problem. From what I’ve learnt from questions have asked people, most times, designers have stores but they don’t make their money, because at the end of the day, they have to pay for rent. Unless I have that big client, when I know one dress alone can pay for my store, then I don’t have a problem with that, but till then.
What’s the highest price you’ve placed on a dress?
(Laughs)… Prices depends on request and the amount that was spent, man power and fabric of the dress, because prices change. But it’s a reasonable price. It’s not elaborate. Some people’s request list can be very long, you can’t make an extreme request and say you want the dress to be N15,000.
Have customers ever returned your clothes due to disappointment?
No. But a friend did. Maybe she was in a hurry, I don’t know how they spoilt the zipper. I don’t know what happened that day. Because I’ve made many dresses for people and they have never returned it. They would have told me they have a problem or something. But for my friend, I think they have a function and they were not patient enough to zip it up well.
Anyway, she brought it back and I did it for her. She’s the only one.
O’Saunders has worked with several celebrities, including Sheyi Shay….. Photo Credit: Tayo/Straightfromnaija.com
How will you rate the fashion industry?
We are getting there. We have the good and the bad…. (But) I don’t think it’s good to rate somebody’s work, because they are putting time, money, effort on it, so I don’t think it’s fair to say I give this person 20 marks, 100 marks.
What is the difference between fashion designer and roadside tailor?
A roadside tailor is somebody who does not understand the nitty-gritty of the industry. All the person does is, they come, bring style, they copycat. I call them copycat because, when somebody says he want a particular style, they flip through magazine, and say ‘ok, see this style, you want?’ Fashion designer is somebody who understands the industry, the customer and understands that you have to create something new, you have to make your customers happy; the person understands the body of the customer. They (roadside tailor) don’t understand the body of the customer. You can see the difference when a roadside tailor sews for you and when a fashion designer sews for you.
But there are copycat among Fashion Designers?
Yes, there are.
But how would you feel if a Fashion Designer copy your wears?
It’s bad that after hard work, but then if the person doesn’t have any creativity in mind, you can show yourself. And suing doesn’t work in Nigeria. You cannot stop people from copying if they want to copy. Someone will tell you, ‘I did not copy, me too I have that idea.’ So what’s there to prove? The only time I can (talk) is when we do the same button, same this and that, maybe I will talk, or maybe the person had the same idea. But until our law system is working.
How do celebrities help the fashion industry?
So times they help us and sometimes they don’t. You give them free cloth and they advertise it. But it’s not about advertising. Once in awhile, you (celebrity) too come and buy. How do you think I’m sewing that cloth I’ve given to you? So once in awhile, go and buy from the designer. Though we have some people who buy, but you have some again, all they want is free gown.
Who are the celebrities you’ve worked with?
Bridget of Silverbird Television, I’ve worked with Sheyi Shay before. It’s easy to strike conversation with me, but I also love my space – O’Saunders….. Photo Credit: Tayo/Straightfromnaija.com
How does fashion contribute to the economy? It does contribute a lot. Don’t forget, as a great designer, it’s not only here in Nigeria that people buy your cloths. I don’t really have loads of Nigerian clientele. I noticed my brand has attracted many individuals from foreign countries, like UK, USA, couple of other countries. So it helps, because it’s not only Nigerians who buy clothes from Nigerian designers, we have foreigners too, and all those income are coming back to Nigeria.
How can the government help the Fashion industry?
One, I don’t think it’s something people really think about, but tax, especially people who bring fabrics, and materials related to fashion. The tax is something which affect many market people, then they start lifting the prizes. And two, I think they should pay more emphasizes on giving loans out, especially the young designers; I think it will help the country if we pay more attention on giving loan and try to create a support system for the industry.
Nollywood was once given millions to help the movie industry, how do you feel about Fashion industry not getting?
We have the Bank of Industry to give out loan. But what’s the criteria for you to go Sometimes, people discourage you that, oh don’t go there, they pay attention to these particular set of people.
How do you combine the home and business side?
For me, it’s not stressful; it just flows, to be honest. When you have a supportive home, then you are fine. When I talk about home, I mean my husband. He’s very supportive. He doesn’t have issues with what I do. Maybe for now, because I work from home; I’m always home. But apart from that, when he comes, I just say hi, especially during Fashion week. And he knows I can be very busy during Fashion Week. Sometimes I don’t even make food in the house, but my husband is a very good cook (That I’m proud of… Laughs). So he’s very supportive.
How does recession affect you?
Tax, that is what I’m saying, they have increase tax. When you go to the market something you do buy for 2000, now you buy for 3000/4000. Especially the net, it was 4000 now it is 7000, so it’s like 3000 (added to it)
So with the high price and the low income, have you ever thought of quitting?
I am not a quitter. If you are a quitter, then it’s (Fashion industry) a wrong industry for you.
What inspired the name?
O’Saunders. My name is Olabisi and my surname is Saunders. So that’s how I got it. No stress, no wahala, nothing; Just ‘O’ then apostrophe Saunders. You can’t compare a Fashion Designer’s work with a Roadside Tailor – O’Saunders…. Photo Credit: Tayo/Straightfromnaija.com
Do you work for award when designing or sewing your clothes?
I think when everybody work in life, you expect to get a little bit of gratitude or recognition somehow, but it’s not like I particularly say ‘oh, I’m working, I must get this award’. No! I work hard, that’s all, and then whatever comes with it, the good, the bad and the ugly, fine.
How many award have you won?
I have two and one nomination which the award is suppose to be on the 6th of may ‘Black MUA’ Awards, it’s in UK, I was nominated for that and I’m one of the finalist, but unfortunately, I might not go.
But not being present at Award shows do affect chances of winning?
What is for you, is for you. You no go force people. Can you force people? You can’t force anybody nah. Although, sometimes, some people they work towards the award, you understand? But I am not the type, if you want to give me award, you give me, if you don’t want to give me, God is awarding me every day.
What’s your relationship like with other designers?
What you see is what you get. You see me now, I’m a very playful type. I can mingle with anybody; there’s an adage that says, if you wash your hands well, you will eat with elderly people, and that’s me. Because I know I wash my hands well, I can sit with any elderly person and eat with the person. I don’t have any borne with anybody, because to me, we are all trying to get there. Somehow, people will say it’s a competition, but it’s not a competition to me. Everybody is just trying to put food on their table. For me it’s not a competition, it’s about living your dreams and doing what you love doing. That’s for me. To some other people, it might be a competition; good for them.
Are you part of any association?
No. I know of every association. They have invited me to almost all of them, but I told you I love my space. I don’t want to. Later, I will, but for now, I don’t have time for now. The Federal Government can help the Fashion Industry by looking into tax on materials related to the Fashion Industry and provide easy access to loan for up and coming Fashion Designer – O’Saunders….. Photo Credit: Tayo/Straightfromnaija.com
Your most embarrassing day on stage, have you had any?
That wasn’t embarrassing, I think it was very comical, the day they called me for one of these award, one of them, I wasn’t there at all, they called me, I had left after the show, I was tired because I made all the gowns, so after the show, I was very tired, so I had to leave. The next day I called to say thank you for allowing me do your show (because normally I call organisers to say thank you for their show), and then they were like we called you yesterday for your award, you were not there, and I was like, which award? The person said you won an award, and we were calling, but you were not there. So I mumbled words in surprise and I said thank you very much. But the second, I was backstage; you know when you are not expecting something. I was backstage fooling around as usual, I’m always joking around with everybody, while I was there talking and then they called me, and I heard my name, Olabisi Saunders, and I’m like (looking around for the Olabisi Saunders). I’m telling you, you will not get another person called Olabisi Saunders in this world, that one I go tell you. I was just looking around, when the person I was talking to said, ‘is it not you they are calling?’ so I was shocked, I just ran to the stage like ‘ok, I’m here’. You know when you are not sure of what you want to say. They said congratulation, and I kept saying thank you, thank you. I didn’t know what to say. I was just smiling.
Any event coming up?
I might be going to Kenya. Kenya Fashion Week has invited me. The Dakar Fashion Week also invited me but I have something coming up, so I can’t go. From now to June, I don’t have time. But I might be going to either Mercedes Benz in South Africa or Kenya Fashion because I have those invite. What’s your advice for up and coming fashion designers who see you, Mai Atafo and other top designers as mentors?
Mai Atafo is big o. I never reach him level o, for where… (Laughs)
Anyway, one of the things I want to say to them is, if you know you are the type of person who cannot handle challenges, the industry is not for you, because you will get it all; the good, the bad, and the ugly, you will get it all, you will get the negative critic and the positive critic. It’s just for you to know how to handle all of it. And then, you take a deep breath and say, I learn from it or I don’t learn from it, or I don’t care or I care, but get a thick skin. The second thing is, work hard. All those big names you were calling, the Mai Atafo, Deola Sagoe, it was through hard work, it didn’t come in a day. I’m sure they went through the same struggle I went through. You will find few in the industry who had it easy, but the majority, they didn’t have it easy. So I’m sure they have stories to tell. So that’s one thing you have to face, you have to work hard, don’t quit, don’t allow anybody to pick you down; because one thing about me is, it’s only me that can put me down. Nobody else can put me down. Even when I was in Ghana, I had a lot of issues there, but now, I can lift my head up and I’m proud to say, I’m one of the (graduate) student they are using as example for their soon to be graduates. So I can say I’m proud of myself for that.